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I like long bonds.  I am not saying that I like them as an investment.  I like them because they tell me about the economy.

Though I argued to the Obama Administration that they should issue Fifties, Centuries and Perpetuals, the Thirty-year bond remains the longest bond issued.  I think its yield tells us a lot about the economy.

How fast is nominal growth?  Look at the Thirty; it is highly correlated with that.

What should the Fed use for its monetary policy?  Look at the Thirty, and don’t let the Five-year note get a higher yield than it.  Also, don’t let the spread of the Two-year versus the Thirty get higher than 1.5%.  When things are bad, stimulus is fine, but it is better to wait at a high spread than goose the spread higher. Excesses in loose policy tend to beget excesses in tight policy.  Better to avoid the extremes, and genuinely mute the boom-bust cycle, rather than trying to prove that you are a genius/maestro when you are not.  Extreme monetary policy does not get rewarded.  Don’t let the yield curve get too steep; don’t invert.

Finally, the Thirty is a proxy for the cost of capital.  It’s long enough that it is a leap of faith that you will be paid back.  Better still for the cost of capital is the Moody’s Baa average, which tracks the bold bet of lending to low investment grade corporations for 20-30 years.

That said, the Thirty with its cousin, the long Treasury Inflation Protected Security [TIPS] gives you an idea of how long term inflation expectations and real rates are doing.  The thing that kills stocks is higher long term real interest rates, not inflation expectations.  The main reason for this is that when inflation rises, usually earnings do also, at least at cyclical companies.  But there is no reason why earnings should rise when real rates rise.

This is why I pay more attention to the Thirty rather than the more commonly followed Ten.  I know that more debt gets issued at a maturity of ten years.  Granted.  But the Thirty tells me more about the economy as a whole, and about its corporations.  That’s why I carefully watch the Thirty.

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Listening to the Fed Chair’s press conference, there was one thing where I disagreed with what Powell was saying.  He said a few times that they only made one decision at the FOMC meeting, that of raising the Fed Funds rate and the reverse repo rate by 0.25%.  They made another decision as well. The decided to raise the rate of quantitative tightening [QT] by increasing the rate of Treasury, MBS and agency bonds rolloff by $10B/month starting in April. They did that by increasing the rate of reduction of MBS and agency bonds from $8B to $12B/month, and Treasuries from $12B to $18B/month. The total rate of QT goes from $20B to $30B/month.  This may raise rates on the longer end, because the Fed will no longer buy so much debt.

There was also a little concern over people overinterpreting the opinions of the Fed Governors, especially over the “dot plot,” which shows their opinions over real GDP growth, the unemployment rate, PCE inflation, and the Fed funds rate.  My point of view is simple.  If you don’t want people to misinterpret something, you need to defend it or remove it.

Personally, I think the FOMC invites trouble by doing the forecasts.  First, the Fed isn’t that good at forecasting — both the staff economists and the Fed Governors themselves.  Truly, few are good at it — people tend to either follow trends, or call for turns too soon.  Rare is the person that can pick the turning point.

Let me give you the charts for their predictions, starting with GDP:

The Fed Governors have raised their GDP estimates; they raised the estimates the most for 2018, then 2019, then 2020, but they did not raise them for the longer run.  I seems that they think that the existing stimulus, fiscal and monetary, will wear off, and then growth will return to 1.8%/year.  Note that even they don’t think that GDP will exceed 3%/year, and generally the Fed Governors are paid to be optimists.  Wonder if Trump notices this?

Then there is the unemployment rate.  This graph is the least controversial.  The short take is that unemployment rate estimates by the Fed governors keep coming down, bottoming in 2019, and rising after that.

Then there is PCE Inflation.  Estimates by the Fed Governors are rising, and in 2019 and 2020 they exceed 2%.  In the long run the view of the Fed Governors is that they can achieve 2% PCE inflation.  Flying in the face of that is that they haven’t been able to do that for the duration of this experiment, so should we believe in their power to do so?

Finally, there is the Fed Funds forecast of the Fed Governors — the only variable they can actually control. Estimates rose a touch for 2018, more for 2019, more for 2020, and FELL for the long run. Are they thinking of overshooting on Fed Funds to reduce future inflation?

Monetary policy works with long and variable lags, as it is commonly said.  That is why I said, “Just Don’t Invert the Yield Curve.”  Powell was asked about inverting the yield curve at his press conference, and he hemmed and hawed over it, saying the evidence isn’t clear.  I will tell you now that if the Fed Funds rate follows that path, the Fed will blow something up, and then start to loosen again.  If they stop and wait when 10-year Treasury Note yields exceed 2-year yields by 0.25%, they might be able to do something amazing, where monetary policy hits the balancing point.  Then, just move Fed funds to keep the yield curve slope near that 0.25% slope.

There would be enough slope to allow prudent lending to go on, but not enough to go nuts.  Much better than the present policy that amplifies the booms and busts.  The banks would hate it initially, and regulators would have to watch for imprudent lending, because there would be no more easy money to be made.  Eventually the economy and banks would adjust to it, and monetary policy would become boring, but predictably good.

Photo Credit: Brookings Institution

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Jerome Powell is not an economist, and as such, has the potential to try to remake the way the Fed does monetary policy.  Rather than hold onto outmoded ideas ideas like the Phillips Curve, which may have made sense when the US was a more insular economy, there are better ways to think of monetary policy from a structural standpoint of how financial firms work.

(Note: the Phillips Curve relies on a very simple assumption that goods and services price inflation stems from wage inflation, and that wage inflation occurs when domestic unemployment is low.  In a global economy, those relationships are broken when labor can be easily added from sources outside of the US.)

Financial firms tend to grow rapidly when the yield curve is steeply sloped.  Borrowing short and lending long is profitable, at least in the short-run.  This provides a lot of credit to the economy, which in the short-run, encourages growth, as businesses borrow to build supply, and consumers borrow, which temporarily boosts demand.

Financial firms tend to shrink when the yield curve is flattish and certainly when negatively sloped.  Borrowing short and lending long is unprofitable, at least in the short-run.  This reduces credit to the economy, which in the short-run discourages growth, as businesses don’t borrow to build supply, and consumers borrow less, which temporarily reduces demand.

If there are misfinanced (too much short-term borrowing) or over-indebted areas of the economy, there can be considerable economic failure with a flat or inverted yield curve.  As I have said before, when the FOMC tightens without thinking about the financial economy, they keep tightening until something blows up, and then they loosen too much, starting the next cycle of over-borrowing.  I said this at RealMoney in 2006:

One more note: I believe gradualism is almost required in Fed tightening cycles in the present environment — a lot more lending, financing, and derivatives trading gears off of short rates like three-month LIBOR, which correlates tightly with fed funds. To move the rate rapidly invites dislocating the markets, which the FOMC has shown itself capable of in the past. For example:

  • 2000 — Nasdaq
  • 1997-98 — Asia/Russia/LTCM, though that was a small move for the Fed
  • 1994 — Mortgages/Mexico
  • 1989 — Banks/Commercial Real Estate
  • 1987 — Stock Market
  • 1984 — Continental Illinois
  • Early ’80s — LDC debt crisis

So it moves in baby steps, wondering if the next straw will break some camel’s back where lending has been going on terms that were too favorable. The odds of this 1/4% move creating such a nonlinear change is small, but not zero.

But on the bright side, the odds of a 50 basis point tightening at any point in the next year are even smaller. The markets can’t afford it.

Position: None

 

I also commented that housing was likely to be the next blowup in a number of posts from that era.  Sadly, they are mostly lost because of a change in the way theStreet.com managed its file system.

As such, it behooves the Fed to avoid overly flattening the yield curve.  In late 2005, I wrote at RealMoney.com that the Fed should stop at 4%, and let the excess of the economy work themselves out.  By mid -2006, they raised the Fed Funds rate to 5.25%, flattening to invert the yield curve, which collapsed the leverage in the economy in a disorderly way.

It would have been better to stop at 4%, and watch for a while.  Housing prices had peaked, and I wrote about that at RealMoney.com as well.  The Fed could have been more gradual at that point.  There really wasn’t that much inflation, and the economy was not that strong.  Bernanke may have felt that he needed to prove that he wasn’t a dove on inflation.  Who knows?  The error was unforced, and stemmed from prior bad practices.

In this case, the Fed does have an alternative to crashing the economy again.  I would encourage the FOMC to not raise rates over 2.5%.  When they get to 2.5%, they should start selling the longest bonds in their portfolio (note: I would encourage them to end balance sheet disclosure before they do this, after all, the Fed suffers from too much communication not too little.  The Fed was better managed under Volcker and Martin.)

This would test the resilience of the economic expansion, and if the economy keeps growing as long bonds rise in yield, then match the rises in long yields with rises in the Fed Funds rate.  This is a neo-Wicksellian method of managing monetary policy that could match the ideas of Jerome Powell, who was more skeptical than most Fed Governors about about Quantitative Easing [QE].

The eventual goal is to manage monetary policy aiming for a yield curve that has a low positive slope, allowing the banks to make a little money, but not a lot.  The economy would expand moderately, and not be as prone to booms and busts.

My summary advice for the FOMC would be this: before you flatten/invert the yield curve, start selling all of the long MBS and Treasury bonds with average maturities longer than 10 years.  That will slow down the economy more effectively than flattening the yield curve, and it is not as likely to lead to a crisis.

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I have no illusions — the odds of the FOMC doing this is remote.  But given past failures, isn’t a new idea worthy of consideration?

PS — there is another factor here.  What happens to the financing costs of the profligate US government?

The future return keeps getting lower, as the market goes higher

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Jeff Bezos has a saying, “Your margin is my opportunity.”  He has found ways to eat the businesses of others by providing the same goods and services at a lower cost.  Now, that makes Amazon more productive and others less productive.  The same is true of other internet-related businesses like Google, Netflix, etc.

And, there is a slight net benefit to the economy from the creative destruction.  Old capital gets recycled.  Malls that are no longer so useful serve lower-margin businesses for locals, become homes to mega-churches, other area-intensive human gatherings, or get destroyed, and the valuable land so near many people gets put to alternative uses that are better than the mall, but not as profitable as the mall prior to the internet.

Laborers get released to other work as well.  They may get paid less than they did previously, but the system as a whole is more productive, profits rise, even as wages don’t rise so much.  A decent part of that goes to the pensions of oldsters — after all, who owns most of the stock?  Indirectly, pension plans and accounts own most of it.  As I have sometimes joked, when there are layoffs because institutional investors representing pension plans  are forcing companies to merge, or become more efficient in other ways, it is that the parents are laying off their children, because there are cheaper helpers that do just as well, and the added profits will aid their deservedly lush retirement, with little inheritance for their children.

It is a joke, though seriously intended.  Why I am mentioning it now, is that a hidden assumption of my S&P 500 estimation model is that the return on assets in the economy as a whole is assumed to be constant.  Some will say, “That can’t be true.  Look at all of the new productive businesses that have been created! The return on assets must be increasing.”  For every bit of improvement in the new businesses, some of the old businesses are destroyed.  There is some net gain, but the amount of gain is not that large in aggregate, and these changes have been happening for a long time.  Technological progress creates and destroys.

As such, I don’t think we are in a “New Era.”  Or maybe we are always in a “New Era.”  Either way, the assumption of a constant return on assets over time doesn’t strike me as wrong, though it might seem that way for a decade or two, low or high.

As it is today, the S&P 500 is priced to deliver returns of 3.24%/year not adjusted for inflation over the next ten years.  At 12/31/2017, that figure was 3.48%, as in the graph above.

We are at the 95th percentile of valuations.  Can we go higher?  Yes.  Is it likely?  Yes, but it is not likely to stick.  Someday the S&P 500 will go below 2000.  I don’t know when, but it will.  There are enough imbalances in the world — too many liabilities relative to productivity, that crises will come.  Debt creates its own crises, because people rely on those payments in the short-run, unlike stocks.

There are many saying that “there is no alternative” to owning stocks in this environment — the TINA argument.  I think that they are wrong.  What if I told you that the best you can hope for from stocks over the next 10 years is 4.07%/year, not adjusted for inflation?  Does 1.24%/year over the 10-year Treasury note really give you compensation for the additional risk?  I think not, therefore bonds, low as they may be, are an alternative.

The top line there is a 4.07%/year return, not adjusted for inflation

If you are happy holding onto stocks, knowing that the best scenario from past history would be slightly over 3400 on the S&P 500 in 2028, then why not buy a bond index fund like AGG or LQD that could virtually guarantee something near that outcome?

Is there risk of deflation?  Yes there is.  Indebted economies are very susceptible to deflation risk, because wealthy people with political influence will always prefer an economy that muddles, to higher taxes on them, inflation, or worst of all an internal default.

That is why I am saying don’t assume that the market will go a lot higher.  Indeed, we could hit levels over 4000 on the S&P if we go as nuts as we did in 1999-2000.  But the supposedly impotent Fed of that era raised short-term rates enough to crater the market.  They are in the process of doing that now.  If they follow their “dot plot” to mid-2019 the yield curve will invert.  Something will blow up, the market will retreat, and the next loosening cycle will start, complete with more QE.

Thus I am here to tell you, there is an alternative to stocks.  At present, a broad market index portfolio of bonds will likely outperform the stock market over the next ten years, and with lower risk.  Are you ready to make the switch, or at least, raise your percentage of safe assets?

After almost three years, I returned to RT Boom/Bust on Tuesday.  There are many changes at RT.  Many new people, and a growing effort to put together an alternative channel that covers the world rather than just the US or just the developed world.  They are bursting at the seams, and their funding has doubled, so I was told.

I get surprised by who watches RT and sees me.  My  congregation is pretty conservative in every way, but I have some friends working in intelligence come up to me and say, “Hey, saw you on RT Boom/Bust.”  And then there is my friend from Central Africa who says, “The CIA has you on their list.  Watch out!”  He’s funny, hard-working, but very earnest.

I’ve never seen anything in what I have done where there is any hint of editorial control.  Maybe it is there, but I think I would be smart enough to see it.

Anyway, the topic at hand was alternative monetary systems, and the thing that kicked it off was the Vollgelt in Switzerland, where they are trying to create a monetary system where the banks can’t lend against deposits.  Here were my notes for the show, with a little more to fill in:

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  1. Mr. Merkel, what exactly is a sovereign money system?

The banks can’t lend against deposits.  Deposits are segregated, and wait for the depositor to use them.  The deposits no longer can be used by the bank but only the depositor.  There would be no need for deposit insurance, because deposits are off of the bank’s balance sheet.

  1. What is the difference between a sovereign system and the way banks handle your money now?

You would have to pay for your transactional account, because the bank can’t make money off of lending against the deposits. Banks would no longer do “maturity transformation” by lending long against short-term deposits.  Long-term lending would have to be other entities in the economy, such as insurance companies, pension funds, endowments, private individuals, foreign lenders, mortgage REITs, and banks funded by matching sources like CDs, bonds, and equity.

  1. Switzerland is poised to vote on a sovereign money system, or Vollgeld in German. How likely is this vote to pass?

Not likely for three reasons.  First, the Swiss turned down a proposal to back the Swiss Franc with 20% gold.  Not one canton voted for it.  Only 22% of the electorate voted for it.  Second, things aren’t that bad now, and the financial system isn’t that levered.  “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”  Third, this is a total experiment with no real world precedents.  Many criticize economists for imagining what the world should be like and then proposing policy off their unrealistic idealized models.  This is another example of that.  We don’t know what the unintended consequences might be.

Some unintended consequences might be:

  • Transition would be difficult
  • Recession during the transition, because middle and small market lending would likely suffer
  • Pay for transactional accounts – no interest even if inflation is high.
  • Increase in savings accounts, which might be short-dated enough to be transactional
  • Gives a lot of power to the SNB, which might be halfhearted about implementation (Regulators dislike change, and risk).
  • Could be subverted if Government becomes dependent on free money, leading to inflation
  • Moves monetary policy from rate targeting to permanent quantitative monetary adjustment. Unclear how the SNB would tighten policy; maybe issue central bank bonds to reduce money supply?
  1. Could something like this rein in credit bubbles? Are we facing another credit bubble?

Yes, it could.  Most credit bubbles result from short-term lending funding long-term assets.  This would rein it in, in the short-run, but who could tell whether it might come back in another unintended way?  If some new class of lender became dominant, the threat could reappear.

We aren’t facing a credit bubble now, because the last crisis wiped away a lot of private debt, and replaced it with public debt.  Perhaps some weak nations with debts not in their own currency could be at risk, but right now, there aren’t any categories of private debt big enough and misfinanced enough to create a crisis.  That said, watch margin loans, student loans, and auto loans in the US.

  1. Are there any modern day equivalents we can compare Vollgeld to?

None that are currently being used.  There are a lot of theoretical ideas still being tossed around, like 100% reserving, lowering bank leverage, strict asset-liability matching, disallowing banks from lending to financial companies, etc.  These ideas get a lot of press after crises, but fade away afterward.  Most of them would work, but all of them lower bank profits.  Concentrated interests tend to win against general interests, except in crises.

  1. You mentioned there is a similar concept for derivatives that no one is talking about. How exactly would that work?

Derivatives are functionally equivalent to insurance contracts, but they are not regulated.  I believe they should be regulated like insurance contracts, and require that those seeking insurance have an “insurable interest” that they are trying to hedge.  Only direct hedgers could initiate derivative transactions, and financial guaranty insurers would compete to fill the need.

This would prevent the unintended consequences of having multiples of protection written on a given risk, where a weak party like AIG is incapable of making good on all of the derivative contracts that they have written, which could lead to its own systemic risk if other derivative counterparties can’t absorb the losses.

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I know that is over-simplified, but I read through the papers of both sides in the debate, and I thought both overstated their cases significantly.

I know fiat money has its problems, and so does fractional reserve banking, but if you are going to propose a solution, perhaps one that fits the basics of how a well-run bank at low leverage would work would be a good place to start.

Photo Credit: jessica wilson {jek in the box}

David:

It’s been a while since we last corresponded.  I hope you and your family are well.

Quick investment question. Given the sharp run-up in equities and stretched valuations, how are you positioning your portfolio?

This in a market that seemingly doesn’t go down, where the risk of being cautious is missing out on big gains.

In my portfolio, I’m carrying extra cash and moving fairly aggressively into gold. Also, on the fixed income side, I’ve been selling HY [DM: High Yield, aka “Junk”] bonds, shortening duration, and buying floating rate bank loans.

Please let me know your thoughts.

Regards

JJJ

Dear JJJ,

Good to hear from you.  It has been a long time.

Asset allocation is always a marriage between time horizon (when is the money needed for spending?) and expected returns, with some adjustment for risk.  I suspect that you are like me, and play for a longer horizon.

I’m at my lowest equity allocation in 17 years.  I am at 65% in equities.  If the market goes up another 4-5%, I am planning on peeling of 25% of that to go into high quality bonds.  Another 20% will go if the market rises 10% from here.  At present, the S&P 500 offers returns of just 3.4%/year for the next ten years unadjusted for inflation.  That’s at the 95th percentile, and reflects valuations of the dot-com bubble, should we rise that far.

The stocks that I do have are heading in three directions: safer, cyclical and foreign.  I’m at my highest level for foreign stocks, and the companies all have strong balance sheets.  A few are cyclicals, and may benefit if commodities rise.

The only thing that gives me pause regarding dropping my stock percentage is that a lot of “friends” are doing it.  That said, a lot of broad market and growth investors are making “new era” arguments.  That gives me more comfort about this.  Even if the FAANG stocks continue to do well, it does not mean that stocks as a whole will do well.  The overall productivity of risk assets is not rising.  People are looking through the rearview mirror, not the windshield, at asset returns.

I can endorse some gold, even though it does nothing.  Nothing would have been a good posture back in the dot-com bubble, or the financial crisis.  Commodities are undervalued at present.  I can also endorse long Treasuries, because I am not certain that inflation will run in this environment.  When economies are heavily indebted they tend not to inflate, except as a last resort.  (The wealthy want to protect their claims against the economy.  The Fed generally helps the wealthy.  Those on the FOMC are all wealthy.)

I also hold more cash than normal.  The three of them, gold, cash and long Treasury bonds form a good hedge together against most bad situations.

The banks are in good shape, so the coming troubles should not be as great as during the financial crisis, as long as nothing bizarre is going on in the repo markets.

That said, I would be careful about bank debt.  Be careful about the covenants on the bank debt; it is not as safe as it once was.  I don’t own any now.

Aside from that, I think you are on the right track.  The most important question is how much you have invested in risk assets.  Prudent investors should be heading lower as the market rises.  It is either not a new era, or, it is always a new era.  Build up your supply of safe assets.  That is the main idea.  Preserve capital for another day when risk assets offer better opportunities.

Thanks for writing.  If you ever make it to Charm City or Babylon, let me know, and we can have lunch together.

Sincerely,

David

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I thought this old post from RealMoney.com was lost, never to be found again.  This was the important post made on November 22, 2006 that forecast some of the troubles in the subprime residential mortgage backed securities market.  I favored the idea that there there would be a crash in residential housing prices, and the best way to play it would be to pick up the pieces after the crash, because of the difficulties of being able to be right on the timing of shorting could be problematic.  In that trade, too early would mean wrong if you had to lose out the trade because of margin issues.

With that, here is the article:

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I have tried to make the following topic simple, but what I am about to say is complex, because it deals with the derivative markets. It is doubly or triply complex, because this situation has many layers to unravel. I write about this for two reasons. First, since residential housing is a large part of the US economy, understanding what is going on beneath the surface of housing finance can be valuable. Second, anytime financial markets are highly levered, there is a higher probability that there could be a dislocation. When dislocations happen, it is unwise for investors to try to average down or up. Rather, the best strategy is to wait for the trend to overshoot, and take a contrary position.

 

There are a lot of players trotting out the bear case for residential housing and mortgages. I’m one of them, but I don’t want overstate my case, having commented a few weeks ago on derivatives in the home equity loan asset-backed securities market. This arcane-sounding market is no small potatoes; it actually comprises several billions of dollars’ worth of bets by aggressive hedge funds — the same type of big bettors who blew up so memorably earlier this year, Amaranth and Motherrock.

 

A shift of just 10% up or down in residential housing prices might touch off just such another cataclysm, so it’s worth understanding just how this “arcane-sounding” market works.

 

I said I might expand on that post, but the need for comment and explanation of this market just got more pressing: To my surprise, one of my Googlebots dragged in a Reuters article and a blog post on the topic. I’ve seen other writeups on this as well, notably in Grant’s Interest Rate Observer (a fine publication) and The Wall Street Journal.

How a Securitization Works (Basically)

 

It’s difficult to short residential housing directly, so a market has grown up around the asset-backed securities market, in which bulls and bears can make bets on the performance of home equity loans. How do they do this?

 

First, mortgage originators originate home equity loans, Alt-A loans and subprime loans. They bring these loans to Wall Street, where the originator sells the loans to an investment bank, which dumps the loans into a trust. The investment bank then sells participation interests (“certificates”) in the trust.

 

There are different classes of certificates that have varying degrees of credit risk. The riskier classes receive higher interest rates. Typically the originator holds the juniormost class, the equity, and funds an overcollateralization account to give some security to the next most junior class.

 

Principal payments get allocated to the seniormost class. Once a class gets its full share of principal paid (or cancelled), it receives no more payments. Interest gets allocated in order of seniority. If, after paying interest to all classes, there is excess interest, that excess gets allocated to the overcollateralization account, until the account is full — that is, has reached a value equal to the value of the second most junior class of trust certificates — and then the excess goes to the equity class. If there’s not enough interest to pay all classes, they get paid in order of seniority.

 

If there are loan losses from nonpayment of the mortgages or home equity loans, the losses get funded by the overcollateralization account. If the overcollateralization account gets exhausted, losses reduce the principal balances of the juniormost certificates — those usually held by the originator — until they get exhausted, and then the next most junior gets the losses. There’s a little more to it than this (the prospectuses are often a half-inch thick on thin paper), but this is basically how a securitization works.

 

From Hedging to Speculation

 

The top class of certificates gets rated AAA, and typically the lowest class before the equity gets rated BBB-, though sometimes junk-rated certificates get issued. Most of the speculation occurs in securities rated BBB+ to BBB-.

 

The second phase of this trade involves credit default swaps (CDS). A credit default swap is an agreement where one party agrees to make a payment to another party when a default takes place, in exchange for regular compensation until the agreement terminates or a default happens. This began with corporate bonds and loans, but now has expanded to mortgage- and asset-backed securities.

 

Unlike shorting stocks, where the amount of shorting is generally limited by the float of the common stock, there can be more credit default swaps than bonds and loans. What began as a market to allow for hedging has become a market to encourage speculation.

 

With CDS on corporate debt, it took eight years for the notional size (amount to pay if everyone defaulted) of the CDS market to become 4 times the size of the corporate bond market. With CDS on home equity asset-backed securities, it took less than 18 months to get to the same point.

 

The payment received for insuring the risk is loosely related to the credit spread on the debt that is protected. Given that the CDS can serve as a hedge for the debt, one might think that the two should be equal. There are a couple reasons that isn’t so.

 

First, when a default happens, the bond that is the cheapest to deliver gets delivered. That option helps to make CDS trade cheap relative to credit spreads. But a bigger factor is who wants to do the CDS trading more. Is it those who want to receive payment in a default, or those who want to pay when a default occurs?

How It Impacts Housing

 

With CDS on asset-backed securities, the party writing protection makes a payment when losses get allocated to the tranche in question. Most protection gets written on tranches rated BBB+ to BBB-.

 

This is where shorting residential housing comes into the picture. There is more interest in shorting the residential housing market through buying protection on BBB-rated home equity asset-backed securities than there are players wanting to take on that risk at the spreads offered in the asset-backed market at present. So, those who want to short the market through CDS asset-backed securities have to pay more to do the trade than those in the cash asset-backed securities market receive as a lending spread.

 

One final layer of complexity is that there are standardized indices (ABX) for home equity loan asset-backed securities. CDS exists not only for the individual asset-backed securities deals, but also on the ABX indices as well. Those not wanting to do the credit work on a specific deal can act on a general opinion by buying or selling protection on an ABX index as a whole. The indices go down in quality from AAA to BBB-, and aggregate similar tranches of the individual deals. Those buying protection receive pro-rata payments when losses get allocated to the tranches in their index.

 

So, who’s playing this game? On the side of falling housing prices and rising default rates are predominantly multi-strategy and mortgage debt hedge funds. They are paying the other side of the trade around 2.5% per year for each dollar of home equity asset-backed securities protection bought. (Deals typically last four years or so.) The market players receiving the 2.5% per year payment are typically hedge and other investment funds running collateralized debt obligations. They keep the equity piece, which further levers up their returns. They are fairly yield-hungry, so from what I’ve heard, they’re none too picky about the risks that they take down.

 

Who wins and who loses? This is tricky, but if residential real estate prices fall by more than 10%, the buyers of asset-backed securities protection will probably win. If less, the sellers of protection probably win. This may be a bit of a sideshow in our overly leveraged financial markets, but the bets being placed here exceed ten billion dollars of total exposure. Aggressive investors are on both sides of this trade. Only one set of them will end up happy.

 

But how can you win here? I believe the safest way for retail investors to make money here is to play the reaction, should a panic occur. If housing prices drop severely, and home equity loan defaults occur, and you hear of hedge fund failures resulting, don’t act immediately. Wait. Watch for momentum to bottom out, or at least slow, and then buy the equities of financially strong homebuilders and mortgage lenders, those that will certainly survive the downturn.

If housing prices rise in the short run (unlikely in my opinion), and you hear about the liquidations of bearish hedge funds, then the best way to make money is to wait. Wait and let the homebuilders and mortgage finance companies run up, and then when momentum fails, short a basket of the stocks with weak balance sheets.

Why play the bounce, rather than try to bet on the success of either side? The wait could be quite long before either side loses? Do you have enough wherewithal to stay in the trade? Most players don’t; that’s why I think that waiting for one side or the other to prevail is the right course. Because both sides are levered up, there will be an overshoot. Just be there when the momentum fails, and play the opposite side. Personally, I’ll be ready with a list of homebuilders and mortgage lenders with strong balance sheets. Though prospects are not bright today, the best will prosper once the crisis is past.

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Dear Readers, this is another one of my occasional experiments, so please be measured in your comments.  The following was written as a ten-year retrospective article in 2042.

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It was indeed an ugly surprise to many when the payments from Social Security in February 2032 did not come.  Indeed, the phones in Congress rang off the hook, and the scroll rate on incoming emails broke all records.  But as with most things in DC in the 21st century, there was no stomach to deal with the problem, as gridlock continued to make Congress a internally hostile but essentially passive institution.

Part of that gridlock stemmed from earlier Congressional reforms that looked good at the time, but reduced the power of parties to discipline members who would not go along with the leadership.  Part also stemmed from changes in media, which were developing in the 1980s because the media was increasingly out of sync with the views of average Americans, but came to full fruition after the internet became the dominant channel for news flow, allowing people to tune out voices unpleasant to them.  Gerrymandering certainly did not help, as virtually all House seats were noncompetitive.  Finally, the size of the debt, and large continuing deficits limited the ability of the government to do anything.  The Fed was already letting inflation run at rates higher than intermediate interest rates, so they were out of play as well.

Despite occasional warnings in the media that began five years earlier after the Chief Actuary of the Social Security Administration suggested in his 2027 year-end report that this was likely to happen in 4-6 years, most media and people tuned it out because it was impossible in their eyes, and face it, actuaries are deadly dull people.  Only a few bloggers kept up a drumbeat on the topic, but they were ignored as Johnny One-Note Disasterniks.

Shortly thereafter, the obligatory hearings began in Congress, and the new Chief Actuary of the Social Security Administration was first on the list to testify.  First he explained that when the Social Security was developed, this safeguard was added in case the income and assets of the trust were inadequate to make the next payment, that payment would be skipped.  He added that by law, skipped payments would not be made up later.  After all, Social Security is an earned right, but mainly a statutory right and not a constitutional right.  Then he commented that without changes, a payment would likely be skipped in 2033 and 2034, two skips each in 2035 and 2036, and by 2037 three skips would be the “new normal” until demographics normalized, but that would likely take a generation to achieve, as childbearing was out of favor.

There were many other people who testified that day from AARP, its relatively new but strong foe AAWP (w -> Working), and various conservative and liberal think tanks, but no one said anything valuable that the Chief Actuary didn’t already say: without changes to benefits or taxes (contributions, haha), payment skipping would become regular.  It was a darkly amusing sidelight that members of the House of Representatives managed to trot out every “urban myth” about Social Security as true during their hearings, including the bogus idea that everyone has their contributions stored in the own little accounts.

The eventual compromise was not a pretty one:

  • Cost-of-living adjustments were ended.
  • Benefits were means-tested.
  • Late retirement adjustment factors were decreased.
  • All the games where benefits could be maximized were eliminated.
  • Immigration restrictions were loosened for well-off immigrants.
  • The normal retirement age was raised to 72, and
  • “Contributions” would now be assessed on income of all types, with no upper limit.  That said, the rate did not rise.

That ended the payment skipping, though it is possible that a skip could happen in the future.  As it is, much of the current political climate is marked by intergenerational conflict, with Social Security viewed derisively as an old-age welfare plan.  A visitor to the grave of FDR did not find him doing 2000 RPM, but did note the skunk cabbage that someone helpfully planted there.  As it was, quiet euthanasia, some voluntary, some not, took place among the elderly Baby Boomers, tired of being labelled sponges on society, or picked off by annoyed caretakers.

It should be noted that as benefits were cut in real terms, friends and families of the some elderly and disabled helped out, but many elderly people led lives of poverty.  Perhaps if they had expected this, they would have prepared, but they trusted the malleable promises of the US Government.

The open question at present is whether it was wise for society to promote collective security schemes.  As it is, with seven states in pseudo-bankruptcy, many municipalities in similar straits if not real bankruptcy, and many countries suffering with worse demographic problems than the US, the problems of these arrangements are apparent:

  • Breaking the link between childbearing and support in old age discouraged childbearing.
  • Every succeeding generation of participants got a worse deal than those that came before.
  • Politicians learned to prioritize the present over the future, and use monies that should have been put to some productive future use into the benefit of those who would consume currently.
  • Complexity encouraged gaming of the system, whether it was maxing benefits, or faking disability.
  • Retirement ages that were too low made the burden too heavy to the workers supporting retirees.

Future articles in this retrospective series will touch on some of the other problems we have recently faced, as many involuntary collective security measures have hit troubled times, and the unintended effects of too much debt, both governmental and private are still with us.

July 2017September 2017Comments
Information received since the Federal Open Market Committee met in June indicates that the labor market has continued to strengthen and that economic activity has been rising moderately so far this year.Information received since the Federal Open Market Committee met in July indicates that the labor market has continued to strengthen and that economic activity has been rising moderately so far this year.No change.  Feels like GDP is slowing, though.
Job gains have been solid, on average, since the beginning of the year, and the unemployment rate has declined.Job gains have remained solid in recent months, and the unemployment rate has stayed low.Shades labor conditions down, as improvement has seemingly stopped.
Household spending and business fixed investment have continued to expand. Household spending has been expanding at a moderate rate, and growth in business fixed investment has picked up in recent quarters. Shades business fixed investment up.  Does that matter as much in an intangible economy?
On a 12-month basis, overall inflation and the measure excluding food and energy prices have declined and are running below 2 percent.On a 12-month basis, overall inflation and the measure excluding food and energy prices have declined this year and are running below 2 percent.Small change of timing.  It’s not much below 2%…
Market-based measures of inflation compensation remain low; survey-based measures of longer-term inflation expectations are little changed, on balance.Market-based measures of inflation compensation remain low; survey-based measures of longer-term inflation expectations are little changed, on balance.No change
Consistent with its statutory mandate, the Committee seeks to foster maximum employment and price stability.Consistent with its statutory mandate, the Committee seeks to foster maximum employment and price stability.The Dual Mandate is the perfect shield to hide behind.  The Fed can be wrong, but it can never be blamed.
The Committee continues to expect that, with gradual adjustments in the stance of monetary policy, economic activity will expand at a moderate pace, and labor market conditions will strengthen somewhat further. Inflation on a 12-month basis is expected to remain somewhat below 2 percent in the near term but to stabilize around the Committee’s 2 percent objective over the medium term.Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria have devastated many communities, inflicting severe hardship. Storm-related disruptions and rebuilding will affect economic activity in the near term, but past experience suggests that the storms are unlikely to materially alter the course of the national economy over the medium term. Consequently, the Committee continues to expect that, with gradual adjustments in the stance of monetary policy, economic activity will expand at a moderate pace, and labor market conditions will strengthen somewhat further. Higher prices for gasoline and some other items in the aftermath of the hurricanes will likely boost inflation temporarily; apart from that effect, inflation on a 12-month basis is expected to remain somewhat below 2 percent in the near term but to stabilize around the Committee’s 2 percent objective over the medium term.Mentions the transitory effects of hurricanes.  Aside from that, they think they are on track.
Near-term risks to the economic outlook appear roughly balanced, but the Committee is monitoring inflation developments closely.Near-term risks to the economic outlook appear roughly balanced, but the Committee is monitoring inflation developments closely.No change.  Note the unbalanced language, though – they are only monitoring inflation closely.
In view of realized and expected labor market conditions and inflation, the Committee decided to maintain the target range for the federal funds rate at 1 to 1-1/4 percent.In view of realized and expected labor market conditions and inflation, the Committee decided to maintain the target range for the federal funds rate at 1 to 1-1/4 percent.No change.
The stance of monetary policy remains accommodative, thereby supporting some further strengthening in labor market conditions and a sustained return to 2 percent inflation.The stance of monetary policy remains accommodative, thereby supporting some further strengthening in labor market conditions and a sustained return to 2 percent inflation.No change, but monetary policy is no longer accommodative.  The short end of the forward curve continues to rise, and the curve flattens.
In determining the timing and size of future adjustments to the target range for the federal funds rate, the Committee will assess realized and expected economic conditions relative to its objectives of maximum employment and 2 percent inflation.In determining the timing and size of future adjustments to the target range for the federal funds rate, the Committee will assess realized and expected economic conditions relative to its objectives of maximum employment and 2 percent inflation.No change
This assessment will take into account a wide range of information, including measures of labor market conditions, indicators of inflation pressures and inflation expectations, and readings on financial and international developments.This assessment will take into account a wide range of information, including measures of labor market conditions, indicators of inflation pressures and inflation expectations, and readings on financial and international developments.No change.  If you don’t know what will drive decision-making, i.e., it could be anything, just say that.
The Committee will carefully monitor actual and expected inflation developments relative to its symmetric inflation goal.The Committee will carefully monitor actual and expected inflation developments relative to its symmetric inflation goal.No change. Symmetric: we can’t let inflation get too low, because we don’t regulate banks properly.
The Committee expects that economic conditions will evolve in a manner that will warrant gradual increases in the federal funds rate; the federal funds rate is likely to remain, for some time, below levels that are expected to prevail in the longer run.The Committee expects that economic conditions will evolve in a manner that will warrant gradual increases in the federal funds rate; the federal funds rate is likely to remain, for some time, below levels that are expected to prevail in the longer run.No change
However, the actual path of the federal funds rate will depend on the economic outlook as informed by incoming data.However, the actual path of the federal funds rate will depend on the economic outlook as informed by incoming data.No change
For the time being, the Committee is maintaining its existing policy of reinvesting principal payments from its holdings of agency debt and agency mortgage-backed securities in agency mortgage-backed securities and of rolling over maturing Treasury securities at auction.Deleted; QE is over (for now).
The Committee expects to begin implementing its balance sheet normalization program relatively soon, provided that the economy evolves broadly as anticipated; this program is described in the June 2017 Addendum to the Committee’s Policy Normalization Principles and Plans.In October, the Committee will initiate the balance sheet normalization program described in the June 2017 Addendum to the Committee’s Policy Normalization Principles and Plans.Promises the very slow end of QE, as they may start to let securities mature.
Voting for the FOMC monetary policy action were: Janet L. Yellen, Chair; William C. Dudley, Vice Chairman; Lael Brainard; Charles L. Evans; Stanley Fischer; Patrick Harker; Robert S. Kaplan; Neel Kashkari; and Jerome H. Powell.Voting for the FOMC monetary policy action were: Janet L. Yellen, Chair; William C. Dudley, Vice Chairman; Lael Brainard; Charles L. Evans; Stanley Fischer; Patrick Harker; Robert S. Kaplan; Neel Kashkari; and Jerome H. Powell.No dissents; it’s relatively easy to agree with doing nothing.

 

Comments

  • Labor conditions can’t get much better. GDP is meandering.
  • The yield curve is flattening, with short rates rising more than long rates.
  • Stocks, bonds and gold fall a little. Though the statement doesn’t say it, many conclude that tightening will continue.
  • I think the Fed is too optimistic about the economy. I also think that they won’t get far into letting securities mature before they resume reinvestment.

Photo Credit: Fabio Tinelli Roncalli || Alas, there were so many signs that the avalanche was coming…

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Ten years ago, things were mostly quiet.  The crisis was staring us in the face, with a little more than a year before the effects of growing leverage and sloppy credit underwriting would hit in full.  But when there is a boom, almost no one wants to spoil the party.  Yes a few bears and financial writers may do so, but they get ignored by the broader media, the politicians, the regulators, the bulls, etc.

It’s not as if there weren’t some hints before this.  There were losses from subprime mortgages at HSBC.  New Century was bankrupt.  Two hedge funds at Bear Stearns, filled with some of the worst exposures to CDOs and subprime lending were wiped out.

And, for those watching the subprime lending markets the losses had been rising since late 2006.  I was following it for a firm that was considering doing the “big short” but could not figure out an effective way to do it in a way consistent with the culture and personnel of the firm.  We had discussions with a number of investment banks, and it seemed obvious that those on the short side of the trade would eventually win.  I even wrote an article on it at RealMoney in November 2006, but it is lost in the bowels of theStreet.com’s file system.

Some of the building blocks of the crisis were evident then:

  • European banks in search of any AAA-rated structured product bonds that had spreads over LIBOR.  They were even engaged in a variety of leverage schemes including leveraged AAA CMBS, and CPDOs.  When you don’t have to put up any capital against AAA assets, it is astounding the lengths that market players will go through to create and swallow such assets.  The European bank yield hogs were a main facilitator of the crisis that was to come, followed by the investment banks, and bullish mortgage hedge funds.  As Gary Gorton would later point out, real disasters happen when safe assets fail.
  • Speculation was rampant almost everywhere. (not just subprime)
  • Regulators were unwilling to clamp down on bad underwriting, and they had the power to do so, but were unwilling, as banks could choose their regulators, and the Fed didn’t care, and may have actively inhibited scrutiny.
  • Not only were subprime loans low in credit quality, but they had a second embedded risk in them, as they had a reset date where the interest rate would rise dramatically, that made the loans far shorter than the houses that they financed, meaning that the loans would disproportionately default near their reset dates.
  • The illiquidity of the securitized Subprime Residential Mortgage ABS highlighted the slowness of pricing signals, as matrix pricing was slow to pick up the decay in value, given the sparseness of trades.
  • By August 2007, it was obvious that residential real estate prices were falling across the US.  (I flagged the peak at RealMoney in October 2005, but this also is lost…)
  • Amid all of this, the “big short” was not a sure thing as those that entered into it had to feed the trade before it succeeded.  For many, if the crisis had delayed one more year, many taking on the “big short” would have lost.
  • A variety of levered market-neutral equity hedge funds were running into trouble in August 2007 as they all pursued similar Value plus Momentum strategies, and as some fund liquidated, a self reinforcing panic ensued.
  • Fannie and Freddie were too levered, and could not survive a continued fall in housing prices.  Same for AIG, and most investment banks.
  • Jumbo lending, Alt-A lending and traditional mortgage lending had the same problems as subprime, just in a smaller way — but there was so much more of them.
  • Oh, and don’t forget hidden leverage at the banks through ABCP conduits that were off balance sheet.
  • Dare we mention the Fed inverting the yield curve?

So by the time that BNP Paribas announced that three of their funds that bought Subprime Residential Mortgage ABS had pricing issues, and briefly closed off redemptions, and Countrywide announced that it had to “shore up its funding,” there were many things in play that would eventually lead to the crisis that happened.

Some of us saw it in part, and hoped that things would be better.  Fewer of us saw a lot of it, and took modest actions for protection.  I was in that bucket; I never thought it would be as large as it turned out.  Almost no one saw the whole thing coming, and those that did could not dream of the response of the central banks that would take much of the losses out of the pockets of savers, leaving bad lending institutions intact.

All in all, the crisis had a lot of red lights flashing in advance of its occurrence.  Though many things have been repaired, there are a lot of people whose lives were practically ruined by their own greed, and the greed of others.  It’s a sad story, but one that will hopefully make us more careful in the future when private leverage rises, creating an asset bubble.

But if I know mankind, the lesson will not be learned.

PS — this is what I wrote one decade ago.  You can see what I knew at the time — a lot of the above, but could not see how bad it would be.